From Brazil

with Vincent Bevins and guests

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Vincent Bevins é colaborador do jornal britânico 'Financial Times' e correspondente no Brasil do 'Los Angeles Times'. Escrito em inglês, blog aborda principais acontecimentos do Brasil sob o olhar de um estrangeiro.

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The people’s team

Por frombrazil

The legions of fans in the outskirts of São Paulo that celebrate and suffer along with Corinthians, arguably Brazil’s toughest soccer team, are maddeningly close to clinching the South American title.

By Dom Phillips

“Hawk steals reporters cell-phone at Corinthians training,” is not a headline sports reporters tend to write. Yesterday one did. The story had everything a sports reporter needed on a slow day: soccer, a girl, an iphone, and a bird of prey – especially as Corinthians biggest organized supporters club is called the Gaviões da Fiel, the Hawks of the Faithful. And the iphone in question was a very lurid pink.

It happened as São Paulo soccer team Corinthians were training on the edge of the city. Press are allowed in to watch. A player is generally put up for a press conference afterwards. As this was the day after Corinthians had won a hard-fought 1-0 victory over rivals Santos in a crucial first-leg semi-final in the South America-wide Libertadores championships, most of Brazil’s news media was represented. I happened to be there too, working on a piece for British soccer magazine 442.

Roberta Gabardo, a reporter for the RedeTV! Network, had put her iphone down for a moment when the hawk appeared and nicked it. Immediately the press and camera crews clustered round, as the bird trotted up and down with a pink cell-phone in its beak, until somebody had the courage to grab it. The next day, it made a story on the uol news site.

At the press conference afterwards, Corinthians goalkeeper Cássio explained that the hawk is a regular visitor to training and the players give it food. I suspect its media career isn’t over yet. It’s a good example of how ravenously Brazilians will consume any news titbit about football – but also of how they like to have fun with it.

While the game is taken deadly seriously, it’s also played for laughs, particularly amongst supporters. Brazilian football banter is quick-witted, cruel, and, much like the hawk who really didn’t want to give up that enticingly-coloured iphone, unrelenting.

My favourite is a visual gag that whizzed around facebook the morning after São Paulo team Palmeiras were slaughtered 6-0 by Coritiba: a photo of a plane in the colours of low-cost airline Gol (Goal), with ‘GOL’ painted six times on on its fuselage in orange instead of the usual one, and a caption suggesting this was the Palmeiras team’s flight home.

I was at the 41st birthday party the night of the Santos-Corinthians game, which the male host, a santista, or Santos fan, had combined with the match. His living room was evenly divided into two arquibancadas, or terraces for opposing fans, seated either side of the television.

Tension was running high, especially when Corinthians scored an early goal. When a swarm of blacks-shirted Corinthians players buzzed angrily around Santos’s star player Neymar, the santistas began to roar their indignation: “Look! How many of them are there?” A corinthiano roared back: “The Corinthians ants! The Corinthians ants!”

Corinthians, as the tradition goes, are the time do povo (the people’s team), its supporter heartlands the endless cinder block periferia, or poor suburbs, in São Paulo’s Zona Leste, or East Zone. When Brazilian military invaded the lawless Vila Cruzeiro favela in December 2010, TV Globo’s helicopter broadcast memorable images of armed bandits fleeing up a dirt track to safety in a nearby favela. Immediately a screen-grab of the instantly-recognisable swarm of bandits did the facebook rounds, with a Corinthians badge inserted and captions ‘identifying’ fleeing gang members as Corinthians players.

The club’s popularity makes it the one team in São Paulo everybody else loves to hate. Emails for that 41st birthday party said that the amount of corinthianos attending meant there would be a search on the door. They’re just jealous.

Passionate, diehard Corinthians fans cheer and sing the loudest when Corinthians concede a goal. Their samba drums beat with the most intensity. They might be the second biggest torcida (fan-group) in Brazil with some 30 million, compared to 40 million for Rio’s Flamengo. But they’re certainly the loudest. I was witness when they proved it one Sunday in December last year, when they clinched the Brazilian championship.

That morning, one of their most famous former players, the Brazilian great Sócrates, had died. Sócrates was captain of the legendary Brazil side of 1982. At Corinthians, he had led the Democracia Corinthiana (Corinthians Democracy) movement at the club in the early 1980s which briefly put decisions in the collective hands of all and coincided with the pro-democracy movement that finally ended Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985.

Before kick-off, players raised one clenched fist in tribute to the gesture that Sócrates and Democracia Corinthiana made famous. Banners depicting his bearded image floated over the ground during the game. After a scrappy draw with Palmeiras left Corinthians champions, the elation and intensity in the stadium was, quite simply, something I’ll never forget.

The club was formed by workers in São Paulo after a visit in 1910 by the famous London amateur football club of the same name and the Romanesque municipal stadium, Pacaembu, where they play is situated in Praça Charles Miller, a square named after the Englishman believed to have introduced soccer to Brazil. All of which made them an obvious choice for a Brit like me to follow. And I’m not the only gringo corinthiano.

Corinthians fans are passionate and diehard. They wear T-shirts in the club colours of black and white with slogans like Louco Por Ti Corinthians (crazy for you Corinthians) and Nunca Vou Te Abandonar Corinthians (I’m never going to abandon you Corinthians). The team has a reputation for creating unnecessary drama: equalising or scoring a winner in the dying seconds of the game, prolonging the agony of their supporters beyond the bearable. The fate of a corinthiano is to ‘suffer’, the fan is a ‘sufferer’. Its players regularly thump the club logo over their hearts.

It’s all about the commitment and the drama, as fans who have supported them all their lives – unlike us gringo pretenders – are wont to explain. And the jokes. The team held doggedly onto that 1-0 lead over Santos until the end of the game, and now just need to draw at Pacaembu next Wednesday in the second leg to reach the final of the Libertadores.

Corinthians have never won the trophy and they want it so bad it hurts. Everybody else wants them to fail. Whatever happens, it will be suffering and drama and jokes right down to the last minute. Who knows, maybe even the Hawk will put in an appearance.

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